Maya Lau is the creator, host and executive producer of the podcast, Other People’s Pockets, produced by Pushkin Industries and Little Everywhere. She's an award-winning former investigative reporter for The…
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You surely recognize Ray Suarez’s voice from NPR, PBS Newshour, Al Jazeera America and more. Yet and still, this renowned broadcaster and author has found it difficult to find desirable jobs the older he gets … and he’s not afraid to admit he’s angry about it.
Life could end at any time. What do you get a badge for working until you keel over?
When I think about retirement, I think about gardening in my backyard, going out to lunch with my friends and traveling whenever I want to. What I don't like thinking about is what if I never get there? What if I haven't saved enough? That's the situation my guest Ray Suarez found himself in. You'll recognize his voice from NPR's Talk of the Nation, PBS News Hour, Al Jazeera America. You get it. He was the quintessential Swiss army knife of a journalist, someone who could write, do radio and TV. But after one of his news outlets folded, Ray found himself unemployed without enough savings and with a resume that most employers felt was too long.
Ray wrote about his experience in the Washington Post in an essay called Sinking Feeling: I Clung to the Middle Class As I Aged, The Pandemic Pulled Me Under. He's also the host of the podcast, Going For Broke. I'm Maya Lau. And this is Other People's Pockets, the show where I ask people about their money. So the questions we all have about how much other people make and how their finances work can be a little bit less of a mystery.
Thank you, Ray, for doing this. I really appreciate it.
Happy to talk to you.
Your op-ed in the Washington Post I think really touched a lot of people. One of the things that was so illuminating in it along with your podcast Going For Broke was like you really illuminated this idea of this treacherous no man's land that seems to exist for many people when they get into their late fifties and early sixties where they're considered too old to be hired and yet they're too young to retire. So can you tell us the story of how you found yourself in that awkward middle ground?
Well, I had always been a good planner and a good saver because I thought, look, I wasn't born with money. I wasn't expecting to inherit big oodles of cash. And I listened to the big voices in the culture that said, "Hey, people are going to live a long time, so don't plan on retiring early." And I had no intention of doing so. I had no interest in doing so. My wife and I lived below our means. We saved well for the college educations of our three children. We paid off our house early, and we were on track for a comfortable retirement, but not one that started when I was 60 years old. That's where the trouble comes in. I left the PBS News hour after 14 years, moved to a startup called Al Jazeera America, and that went belly up a lot sooner than any of us had been led to expect would happen.
Here I was, 59, out of work for the first time in more than 30 years, and I saw my monthly income go down by 75 to 85%. And that's where I was, and trying to figure out how to scramble to find work, what my work life was going to be like now. Would I ever have a full-time employer again? Was this the way it was always going to be? So there's a sort of emotional re-engineering that has to go on and a practical nuts and bolts math-based re-engineering that has to go on. And they're both pretty demanding and they both have to go on at the same time.
And on top of it, you experienced a cancer diagnosis and a dental injury. Can you talk about that too? Because I mean that compounds all these problems.
Well, I'll take the second one first because I think it was just a kind of illustration of the shit happens doctrine of life. We were now paying quite a sizable monthly nut for healthcare in part because my youngest daughter was still on our insurance and lived in another state. So we had to have the PPO, which is the most expensive option. So we're looking at ways to bring down that monthly charge, and an option was dropping dental coverage. And we looked over what we had spent on going to the dentist and getting routine care in the past three years and thought, "Okay, if we go out of pocket on this, we can save a sizable amount of money."
We drop the dental coverage, the cost of our plan goes down a couple of hundred bucks a month. 10 or 12 days later, I'm riding my bicycle through DC. I round a corner, an unfamiliar corner, and at the top of a hill there's a pothole that basically swallows my front wheel and it lands with such an enormous jarring shock that it drives my lower jaw into my upper jaw, basically slams my lower jaw into the rest of my head, cracks a tooth in the back, a molar, and I can feel my jaw starting to swell. The pain is radiating out from my jaw to the rest of my head. And a couple of hours later, and I'm thinking, "Isn't this the way it goes? You drop the dental coverage and you bust the tooth."
How long after you dropped the dental coverage did that happen?
Oh, maybe just 10 or 12 days.
So you just think, "All right, fine, uncle. Okay, universe, I get the message."
You get it.
You're not getting out of this one cheaply.
I had covered, as a reporter, lots of personal histories where people have setbacks, they have bills they can't pay, they're looking at bankruptcy to pay medical bills. And there I am sitting on the couch unemployed, trying to figure out just how hurt I am and realizing I've stopped being the kind of person who covers the travails of other people. Now I am that person. That was one of those light bulb moments as well. Now as far as the cancer diagnosis, after about a year of unemployment, I accepted an appointment as a visiting professor at Amherst College and packed up the house. Went up to Massachusetts, started to work, and I loved it. I loved the kids, I loved the school, I loved teaching, but I was feeling worse and worse. And I was really worried about finding work coming out of it. It was a one-year job, and then I would have to go back to Washington or back to somewhere else and back to work.
And I figured the reason I was feeling so lousy was the stress of it all. And it's true. It had been a very tough time. Finally, we got out of Amherst. We finished the work and ended up by accident in Philadelphia because a job that I was supposed to be offered in Boston fell through. I had no place to go because my house in DC was rented. A friend said, "Well, look, I have a house that I have as a rental property. I just lost a tenant. Why don't you move into it?" And I figured, all right, Philadelphia, I'll run up and down I-95 to freelance in Washington and New York, maybe there's even work in Philadelphia. We move there and I am just rung out moving furniture unpacking boxes. And I just thought, "No, no. I know what this feels like. I know what physical labor feels like."
This is something different. This is too bad for the amount of work that I'm doing. And I went to the doctor. He said, "Hey, you're severely anemic, like dangerous, anemic. I don't even know how you were moving furniture and carrying boxes without just collapsing." And I went for an emergency blood transfusion and an emergency iron transfusion ordered by my new doctor in Philadelphia. Within a week we knew I had cancer. I had bleeding tumors, and this was going to be, my job now, was going to be staying alive for the next year or so.
Right, and how are you doing with it now?
I'm doing great. I am cancer free as far as the latest diagnostic tests that I've taken say. I feel great, I'm in pretty good shape. I realized after the diagnosis that one thing I had been doing was trying to keep myself awake and energized by eating. I thought, "Let me just shovel coal into the bin and see if this keeps me burning." And then while I was on chemo, my doctor said, "Look, whatever you do, don't lose weight." So by the time I was done with chemo and there was no discernible cancer in me anymore. I was a fat boy. So it was time to start.
Could you just eat whatever you want?
Like ice cream?
The doctor said, "Yeah, look, whatever you do, don't lose weight. It's bad for you to lose weight." And I thought, "Lose weight? How the hell am I going to lose weight? The only way I can keep from feeling awful is by eating all the time."
What did it look like when you were in that stage where you were finding gig work, I'm sure applying to jobs, maybe looking for full-time work? Were you getting sort of thinly veiled or not so thinly veiled comments like, here's why we can't hire you? Or, what did it look like? What kind of message did you get back?
The people in charge of hires are too careful to do anything like that. EEOC guidelines make it actionable to make it clear that the reason they're not hiring you is because of your age. So what they would do is gush about my experience and gush about all the things that I had done in the past and what an asset I would be, and then they'd ghost me. Or on the front end of the conversation, they would be all enthusiastic, promise that we would talk soon and then never talk to me. And after a while, the pattern sort of set in and it got so common that I knew what was coming. For some jobs, I was contacted and added to the list of applicants because they wanted to be able to say to their HR superiors that they had spoken to a diverse group of candidates. So I was just cannon fodder. I was in the mix only because they wanted to have a defensible group of applicants. So they weren't really serious about me at all.
Well, and you mentioned that you would see employers say that they wanted to hire Latino staff, and you came to realize Latino means young. They're not saying that, but that's what that means.
Exactly. What they do in practice is hire Latinos at entry level or mid-level positions. When you say senior or veteran... And look at the people who were still working into their sixties and seventies, many of them are. They're all people of European ancestry for the most part. When they want to hire diverse, what they're looking for is young people. And I saw this pattern play out across the many places that I had applied for work. One major national newspaper hired three positions. Because of what had happened over the last couple of years, they thought, "We have to beef up our coverage of demographics, race and ethnicity, the way race operates in our economy and in our social lives." And I applied for one of those jobs, and as clips, sent them the book that I wrote from The History of Latino Migration to the United States. I thought, "All right, well this works as a clip, right?"
Then I sent a couple of other articles that I had written and things like that. I never heard from them. And six months later I wrote to the head of HR, the person who was in charge of the hire, "Hey, did you ever fill that job?" And then I got a form letter back saying, thank you for your interest, we hired somebody else. And then a couple of weeks later, I met the person they hired, talented, capable, interesting. This is no knock on the people who are getting hired. They should get hired. That's great. But also, 30, and I can write and I can talk into microphones and I can interview other people. I can do a lot of things, but I can't ever be 30.
I mean, talking to you, your normal speaking voice is so well honed and it's just so clear that literally your voice has taken on your identity in a way of your broadcast experience. Do you know what I mean? It's hard for me to imagine you just saying, "Oh, well, I'm going to go do you know some other job that has nothing to do with journalism," because it's like you embody a broadcaster. So how do you deal with your ego and take care of your ego when you go through something like this? How do you deal with these questions of self-worth that I'm sure you confronted?
It's hard because the realizations that you have to come to about your new self and your new lot in life don't happen all at once. You don't take the person who you were in your forties and fifties and just one day throttle back and say, "Well, now I'm this reduced, diminished person who can't get their phone calls answered. I can no longer assume that the world is going to take me as that person." And that is very, very hard. You don't collapse, you don't shatter. You don't suddenly come falling down. You erode. A little bit of you gets chipped away with each of these experiences. And you still maintain and cultivate and support that idea of yourself as a person who's still capable of big things while still being realistic enough to recognize that the world won't necessarily look at you as that person who can do big things.
It's very hard, but it's very common for men my age. So I have to make plans based on what is rather than what might be, which is fine. Took me a little while to get there, but I'm fine with it now. And I will also try to live my way into taking full advantage of that. I got an invitation to teach at the NYU Shanghai campus, and I said, yes. So I'm going to China and I'm going to teach there for a semester. That's one of those wonderful, adventurous little things that can come your way when you're no longer structured, 48 weeks a year, 50 hours a week, and able to pretty much know what you're going to be up to six months from now and 12 months from now.
This was one of those things that just came in over the transom, and I can do it. I'm working on a book that's going to come out in 2023, and I'm looking forward to writing in a little less pressured, little less crazy way because the first three books I wrote while I was working full-time. So I want to take advantage of the good things about this time in life, but also fully be aware of the reality of my circumstances. I think I can split that baby.
What's your new book about?
It's about the new America that was ushered in by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. And I'm really loving the research, loving the interviews, and I think it's going to be a terrific book.
Is there any part of you that feels, I don't know, freed from whatever identity you had, or you've gained this new perspective now and you kind of feel like I've just moved into a new realm and now you just have a much wiser perspective on things?
A lot of days I can comfort myself with that, but then I'll hear something going on in the world, know that that used to be the kind of thing that I did, and now I'm a person who hears about it on the radio and television. Yes, to some degrees it's freeing because I've had the opportunity to do fun and interesting things that I wouldn't have had otherwise because there simply would've been no room in my life for it. But I know deep down that some of them are just consolation prizes. They're to keep the meters running, and they're not my heart's desire. They're not what makes my engine turnover in the morning, and the anger over no longer having a place in the marketplace or no longer having my old place in the marketplace. I mean, I'm still working and I still have things to do, makes me angry. It makes me frustrated. It makes me sad. I still have a lot to offer.
That's interesting. You say it makes you angry, and I think that's important. I think it's important and okay to just be like, "I'm angry about this." I feel like too often you're supposed to just kind of paint over it.
Yeah. They tell you anger is not a productive emotion. But I suppose I could do the interior work necessary to make myself not be angry. But wow, that sounds like a lot of emotional labor for not a great outcome.
What's the point of that?
How much money were you making at the height of your career?
I was a one percenter.
Were you making more than $500,000 a year?
You would be warm at that point.
So pretty comfortable.
And can I ask, was your wife also working?
Okay. So you were sole breadwinner and I'm sure that-
... Which increased the pressure. [inaudible 00:20:50] Absolutely.
Right. Can I ask how much you're making now?
Still about 25% of what I was making before.
Do you feel like now you're okay financially or do you still feel that things are precarious?
No, things are not precarious. We were pretty used to not living like I made a lot of money. Now that all three kids are out of the house, our carrying costs are modest. I saved with the assumption that I wouldn't start using any of that retirement money until I was about 68. I'm still years away from that. So part of the project now is bridging across to roughly that age without putting a finger on any of that money, not taking social security early, not taking the modest pension that I have waiting for me early.
Do you have a target retirement age now?
Somewhere in my 67, 68, 69 years. The old me, pre-cancer, would've said, "Stop working." Why? Why would I ever want to do that? One thing that sitting on the couch chemoed-out and thinking that you could die does for you is it makes you realize what a dumb idea that is and how capricious life can be.
Yeah. It's not necessarily that you want to stop working, it's that sometimes you're not going to be able to work.
That, and the idea that life could end at any time. What do you get a badge for working until you keel over?
No. So there are things I want to do in life. There are places I want to go and things I want to see. And now that I'm well, the idea of just continuing to grind away until some long in the future time just doesn't make any sense anymore. If cancer gave me anything, it was a reconsideration of those kinds of things.
What was your upbringing around money and what kind of things do you feel like your parents taught you, whether it was sort of explicit or not?
We lived frugally, but well on a modest income. My parents knew the fate of every quarter that came into the house and they squeezed each one until the eagle squawked on the back. We were not poor, but we were sort of hanging by our fingernails off the bottom of the working class, off the bottom of the middle class. My father worked very hard, and he was a barber at a time when men were moving from getting their haircut once a week to getting their haircut once every five weeks. But the number of men did not increase by 500%. So he hustled and came up with other ways to make money while he still had a barbershop. It was an amazing and sobering thing to watch how he shouldered that. It was heroic. There was a point at which the barbershop just wasn't making much money anymore, and he had to buy a share with money that he scraped together in a store.
So he would leave the barbershop in the late afternoon after working there all day and then work the nighttime in the store. So he'd walk back into the house at 10 o'clock at night, just thrashed. At that point I was 15. So your eyes are kind of open to the world of having and not having and money and responsibility. You're not all the way there yet. You're not a fully fledged adult. But I knew what was going on and I knew what I was watching there. And he would weirdly come through the door, have a little something to eat, then go to bed because he was getting up in a little while to go back to the barbershop. That was something that made a deep impression on me. It was something he never talked about, complained about, observed about, bragged about. He just did it.
Every time I hear the phrase toxic masculinity, for instance, I mean, I'm at an age where I have one foot in both of those worlds. The old post-war baby boomer world of men who worked and women who took care of children, and this other newer different world that we've got now. I sort of was raised with one foot in both of those worlds. But I think about those aspects of masculinity in terms that don't have anything to do with toxicity. No, I don't want women to be subordinate to men, and I don't want men to kill themselves because they think they have to shoulder all of this burden on their own.
I don't extol and celebrate those old models, but I also saw what my father did and recognized it for what it was and understood what a big screaming deal it was to do it. And that puts grooves into the record player that's in your head. That puts impressions that 40 years later, you have ideas about the world of work and responsibility and burdens and obligations that are in ways very profound shaped by those things that you saw as a teenager in an apartment in Brooklyn.
Growing up, you considered yourself maybe, I think you said, clinging to the bottom of the middle class. What class did you consider yourself a part of at the height of your career, and what class do you consider yourself to be in now?
I'm in upper middle class now. I own my home outright, so I don't have a mortgage. And that's something that few Americans can say. So I'm fortunate in that regard. Of course, in your sixties, a lot more Americans can say that, but that's great. I own my house free and clear. I have a nice retirement nest egg that's waiting for me out there in the future that a lot of Americans wouldn't be able to say they have. So I realize how fortunate I am. But day to day, I'm watching pennies, clipping coupons. I'm trying to live in a modest way so I can bridge across to the time in my life when I'll feel able to start tapping that money.
And I often ask this question cause it's really interesting to see what people's responses are. A lot of people just say they're in the middle class. They won't even say upper middle class even though maybe they actually are in the upper middle class.
I find those questions and the answers that a lot of people give really problematic because we are a country where the median household income is around $60,000 a year. When I hear people making a quarter of a million bucks saying they're middle class, I want to bop them in the nose. It's ridiculous. Their life trajectories, their life expectations and the life trajectories of their children are so different from what a real middle class family has waiting for them. The ones who are making 65 or 70 or 58, those families are middle class. Pal, you want to live in San Francisco, you want to live in New York, that's on you. But if you make $250,000, don't tell me you're middle class.
I'm wondering, there's something that's often said in personal finance circles about how you shouldn't necessarily pay off for your kids' college education because you need to make sure that your retirement is fully funded. Would you tell the younger you, maybe they can take on a few loans to make sure that we have a little bit more cushion? Or is that just like-
... I was a little neurotic about this because I paid for college and I worked full-time almost through my entire college career, which didn't do my college career any good. I can tell you that. I did okay. But I know looking back that if I had had the great privilege of just being a student when I was a student, I would've done better and it would've launched me perhaps in different ways. But look, that wasn't in the cards for me. So I did what I did. I didn't want to graduate with debt and I didn't. But I also ended up a little crazy about that. And also, in the intervening years between the time I finished college and the time my kids started college, the price of college went up 1100%. So the token amounts of money that they could make by working were such piddly nonsense in comparison to the nut of the tuition that it actually was a good business decision to have them not work.
They worked during the summer to make the money that they would use as spending money during the school year, but I paid for school. My oldest went to the University of Chicago. My second child, my daughter, went to Columbia, and those schools were phenomenally expensive. And for them to go get a $10 an hour job to help pay a $60,000 tuition and then not do as well because they're working instead of studying to me made no sense at all. So I'm very much at peace with the decisions we made around that. I'm glad I was able to give them the great gift of leaving a four-year undergraduate program with no debt. I made them all the same deal, all three of them. I said, "Look, work hard in high school, get great grades and I will pay for you to go wherever you get into. If it's some swell, phenomenal school that's going to cost a fortune, I'm going to pay for that. But then on the day you graduate, I'm going to take you to dinner, a festive meal, then I'm going to slap my hands like this and pronounce myself done."
And if you want to go to any more school after that, it's up to you. If you go to a state school, I will pay for grad school or I will substantially help you pay for grad school. The only one who took me up on it was the last kid who went to a state school and now has a nice, very healthy, fund waiting for her when, she just finished college, when she decides to go back to grad school, which she does plan to do. So she's the only one. It's a great plan. It was a great deal. It was a great offer. The other kids should have taken it. They didn't. But I'm at peace. When all is said and done, I will have spent around $700,000, bumper to bumper, transportation, living costs, food, books, everything. But that's okay. I don't begrudge that money. They didn't graduate with debt and that's great. What am I supposed to do? Hope that they had six figures instead. I just don't get it.
Right. No, I mean, I love that answer. That final dinner also sounds great that you had with your kids. Must be so satisfying.
I took them to a swell restaurant, paid the whole bill and was done. And my daughter went on to get two graduate degrees, which she financed and is at peace with her decision too. So everybody's okay. The kids are all right.
What's your wife's experience been in all this, both watching you having this amazing career, watching you also struggle at work? I mean, I know we're asking about somebody who's not here, but I'm just curious if there's anything you can say about. She's part of the equation too with any household finances.
Absolutely. And whether it was picking up a shattered man who wondered where his career went, or cheering on a guy who was going to try something new or supporting moving to Amherst, Massachusetts, or holding my hand through a frightening life-threatening illness. She's been there through all of it. We met in high school. We been together since then. And before we used long haul to talk about COVID, I would use it to talk about her.
It sounds like you are a big saver and a big proponent of living below your means, but is there anything that you indulge in financially?
Well, I'm a cyclist and that can be a very expensive hobby. I sometimes joked to friends that my tombstone will say he drove cheap cars and rode expensive bikes because that's the way I wanted to live my life. So I have some very nice bicycles and some very nice clothing to wear when I ride those very nice bicycles.
Very nice. I love it. What does enough look like for you?
To me, it's a luxury not to think about money all the time. And one of the ways I knew I was doing okay when I was in my thirties and forties is when I didn't think about money. Through my teens and twenties, I didn't have a day where I didn't worry about money. So if I've gotten to the point where, yeah, I mean, obviously you can't do whatever you want whenever you want, as much as you want it, sure, there's realities. But if I'm not worried about money, I'm a wealthy guy. I'm a wealthy guy by that yardstick.
If you were to become a listener of this podcast, who would you like to hear from? Whose personal finances are you curious about?
Huh? I got to tell you, I've never even had a thought resembling that thought.
You've what? You've never wondered how much someone makes and how they afforded their house and how they made it work?
When I was a kid and I would ask questions like that, my mother always said the same thing. She said, "Never count anybody else's money." And I came away from that kind of childhood with, I sometimes wondered in a kind of speculative way, but I never really wondered in a, I've really got to know, kind of way. I live in a neighborhood with a lot of nice houses and a lot of well-paid people, and I'd see somebody with a really swell car and I'd think, "All right, well, I know Rick. He's a lawyer. I wonder how much lawyers make. I don't know." And then that would be that. I'd be done with that thought and move on and not think it anymore. That's about as much brain power as I'd want to invest in that.
It's so funny because that's my driving curiosity. My interest is in just knowing about other people's personal finances. Just because one of the spinoff podcast slash segments that I originally pitched, like you were talking about, living in a nice area, people have nice houses, you kind of wonder. One of the ideas I had was a segment called Who the F Lives in That House? What do they do for a living? Is it family money? What's the deal? So I take it your mom would not like me very much, but just kind of like can't help myself. I feel like it's-
... One of the most fascinating conversations I've had in my life about personal finance was with Elizabeth Warren before she was a United States senator. And we were sitting around talking about a street in a Nearian suburb and how you could drive down that street and the houses may have all been built within 5 or 10% of each other in purchase price. But once you get through the front door, there's all kinds of different stories. There are people who are strangling on debt because they've borrowed against the house, or they've bought a boat, or they use home equity to buy a car. We talked about how so many people had gotten into trouble during the '08, '09 housing crisis, and she was right on it. Absolutely formidably well-informed, spoke in a knowledgeable and elegant way about all these things. And we talked about how a town, or a zip code, can only tell you so much. And it was a great conversation. But again, we were just using theoretical people rather than real ones for our conversation.
Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Ray. It's been so nice to talk to you.
It was fun.
Other People's Pockets is written and hosted by me, Maya Lau. It's produced by me, along with Joy Sanford and Dan Gallucci, production help by Angela Vayn. Our mix engineer is Dan Gallucci. Our executive producers are me, Maya Lau, along with Jane Marie and Dan Gallucci. And a special thanks to Dads Who Pay For College. Other People's Pockets is a production of Pushkin Industries. If you love this show, consider subscribing to Pushkin Plus, offering bonus content and ad free listening across our network for $4.99 a month. Look for the Pushkin Plus channel on Apple Podcasts or at Pushkin.fm. To find more Pushkin podcasts, listen on the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen. You can sign up for Pushkin newsletters at Pushkin FM.